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Dysfunctional boards and the psychology of group dynamics


A reader recently sent me an email asking, “Why do boards of directors or trustees, charged with protecting the healthy productive growth of an organization, become dysfunctional and ultimately damage the institution?”

Unfortunately, I have seen this happen in private, public, and non-profit organizations. The answer may be found in the work of an influential British psychoanalyst from the last century, Dr. Wilfred Bion, one of the first psychoanalysts to write extensively on the dynamics of groups in his treatise: “Experiences with Groups.”

Bion found that the recurrent emotional states of groups are divided into two: The “work group,” and the “basic assumption group.” The work group is that aspect of a functioning group that has to do with the principal responsibility of the group and which will “keep the group anchored to a sophisticated and rational level of behavior.”

The “basic assumption group” is where dysfunction is hatched. Bion identified three basic assumptions: dependency, fight-flight, and pairing. He suggests that when a group adopts any one of these basic assumptions, it will interfere with any task the group attempts to accomplish.

He further asserts that the leader or chairperson of the group must be vigilant and judicious in order to maintain order and keep a significant majority of its members in the productive work group and avoid the natural tendency of its members to slip into the unhealthy basic assumption group.

So, what are the signs of dependency, fight-flight and pairing? Bion describes dependency as the need for a board member to feel safe by adopting a passive or withdrawn manner in hope that the chair will protect them. By disengaging they allow the leader to usurp their responsibility.

Fight-flight happens when members determine their survival is most important and it becomes the overriding mission, rather than what the group was formed to accomplish.

Finally, pairing exists when member’s primary focus is perpetuating themselves as a board member rather than carrying out the fiduciary duties of the board.

Boards can — and do — easily slip into a state of dysfunction resulting in organizational ineffectiveness. Effective board chairs who are keenly aware of this risk can move quickly when they see any one of these behaviors being exhibited.

Bion’s findings are as relevant today as ever in many areas of our lives and it is interesting to note that his group therapy psychoanalyses were first conducted on British WWI veterans suffering from severe post-traumatic stress. He found little difference between these patients and healthy, well educated, and sophisticated groups, proving that this form of dysfunction is not limited to the mentally unhealthy.

Patrick Burke is the managing principal of Burke Group, a Rochester-based retirement plan consulting & administration, actuarial services and compensation consulting firm. Contact him at [email protected].